Why we must put our faith into action at the U.N. climate summit and beyond

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Kenyan farmer Bernard Mbithi uproots a field where he was growing corn that failed because of a drought in Kilifi Feb. 16, 2022. The international Council of Cardinals met at the Vatican April 25-27; the U.N. Climate Change meeting will take place in Egypt in November. (CNS photo/Baz Ratner, Reuters)

For the next two weeks (Nov. 6-18), world leaders will convene in Egypt for the annual United Nations climate summit, or COP27, to make important decisions about curbing the greenhouse gas emissions that threaten to take our planet past the brink of climate catastrophe. Among the voices at the summit hoping to impact the negotiations will be dozens of Catholic organizations, including Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the organization for which I work. I cannot think of a more important moment for Catholic voices to unite for a cause, or of a more worthy cause to unite around, than the fight for climate action and justice.

We face a challenge of biblical proportions. Examples of the impacts of climate change on vulnerable communities can be found everywhere CRS works, from Pakistan, where catastrophic flooding recently left a third of the country under water, to East Africa, where the worst drought in 40 years is pushing millions of people to the brink of starvation.

Climate change is a threat multiplier, which destroys agriculture and natural resources, disrupts livelihoods, contributes to mass displacement and worsens health outcomes. Alarmingly, research shows that by 2030, climate change will push up to 132 million people into extreme poverty. The irony and injustice are that those countries and people most affected by climate change are among the poorest in the world; yet, they have contributed the least to the crisis.

With so much at stake, how do we as Catholics mobilize to take concrete and meaningful action?

Before I answer this question, let me state clearly that pursuing climate justice is deeply rooted in our Catholic values. The “preferential option for the poor,” a key principle of Catholic social teaching, invites us to see reality through the perspective of “the least of these” and act in their interests. As Catholics, we must see the impacts of cyclones or hurricanes through the eyes of the poor.

We could not have a more fearless leader on addressing climate change than Pope Francis, whose bold message linking care for creation and care for the poor has set us on the right path. He reminds us: “Every one of us can play a valuable role if all of us join this journey today. Not tomorrow, today. Because the future is constructed today, and it is not constructed alone, but in community and in harmony.”

This brings me back to COP27, where Catholics from around the world can bring the much-needed moral voice into the climate talks. CRS will be working closely with the global Caritas network to advocate for the creation of a finance facility to make up for the loss and damage caused by climate disasters. Currently, the costs of loss and damage fall mostly on poor families. For example, when Madagascar was hit by five cyclones in a period of two months earlier this year, farmers in the hardest-hit communities were left to deplete their savings to rebuild, which will have far-reaching knock-on effects on their future livelihoods. Instead, these types of costs should be borne by countries like our own that are responsible for the highest greenhouse gas emissions. During the summit, rich countries will debate the topic of loss and damage — and CRS will be there to influence the debate.

CRS is also providing American Catholics a pathway to real action. Our new climate change campaign gives Catholics and others of goodwill the opportunity to advocate for the U.S. government to do more. We know we have a willing audience. Before we launched our climate campaign, we commissioned a survey to better understand how American Catholics view climate change. Our results were encouraging; we found that American Catholics are more concerned than non-Catholics about the impacts of climate change and believe that it deserves a collective response.

We are hoping to build on this momentum in the years ahead. Our faith calls us to act without delay and to use every day wisely. What we do between now and 2030 will surely shape the future of everyone on this planet. If we do not take global action on mitigation and adaptation now and address the losses and damage that climate change is already creating, we could miss the chance to secure a livable and sustainable future for us all.

Bill O’Keefe is executive vice president for mission, mobilization and advocacy at Catholic Relief Services.